In 2015, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi announced that the country would transform its capital into a “new” city to be built 50 km east of the current capital, Cairo. The city, named the new administrative capital, was due to open in 2021 but has been postponed in light of the pandemic. The move, which conservatively costs $ 45 billion, has been criticized as a blatant demonstration of military corruption and political demonstration. But Egypt is not alone, recently Palau (2006), Burma (2005), Nigeria (1991) and Belize (1970) have all moved to new capitals as well.
Capitals play an important role in signaling the political, cultural and economic power of a country. As a result, capitals are deliberately chosen to showcase elements of national pride, whether through population strength, geographic significance or infrastructure development. Capitals are subject to change for a variety of reasons, usually with great fanfare but with great economic burden on the nation in question.
Functions of capitals
Historically, the economic center of a state or region has often also been the seat of political power. Capitals tended to attract people with skills suited to politics or administration, such as lawyers, scientists, bankers and journalists. In medieval Europe, in states like ancient Babylon, Athens, London, and Prague, it was not uncommon to have a traveling or wandering capital. In some cases, the city in question was not only the political and economic capital, but as in Constantinople and Rome, also the fulcrum of the state religion.
In an article for Routledge, Tanja Conley and Emily Makaš state that the first modern iteration of capitals emerged between the period of the Napoleonic Wars and World War II, during which, “the construction or adaptation of capitals (brought) a visual support for national ideologies. In Cold war metropolis (1990), Campbell Scott further argues that the shift from city-states to nation-states during this period “exemplifies this dramatic urban transformation that gave birth to the modern capital”. The rise of the absolutist nation-state therefore “transformed the military role of the capital from a fortified military location to a broader demonstration of the political and symbolic centrality of the capital”. RL Wolfel in North of Astana (2002), then notes that with this power, “capitals can either invoke or submerge history, depending on the ideological needs of the state”.
Campbell, in another article, goes on to define the different types of capitals, from classic capitals (Madrid, Paris, Mexico) to relocated capitals (Ankara from Istanbul) to built or planned capitals (New Delhi, Brasilia) to federal capitals ( Canberra, Ottawa) to divide the capitals (Amsterdam and The Hague) into archipelago capitals (Tokyo on Honshu) into capitals with single jurisdictions (Washington DC).
Some nation states have multiple capitals while others have a city as their capital but with most government agencies located elsewhere. In Chile, for example, Santiago is the official capital, but the National Congress meets in Valparaíso. Countries like France and Nauru do not recognize official capitals although for the former, Paris is considered the de facto capital. Some small countries, which function more as city-states, such as Monaco and Singapore, have the country itself as their capital.
Why do countries relocate their capitals?
In Capitals and modern city, Andreas Daum argues that capitals have at times assumed “a mythical quality and have been seen as collective symbols, with ambitions and contradictions that reflect the nation-state they represent”. The decision to move a capital is therefore often a symbolic gesture.
In 1834, four years after gaining independence, Athens became the capital of Greece in the hopes that it would evoke the glory of ancient Greece. More recently, post-colonial nations have changed or renamed capitals in order to assert their independence from their colonizers.
In Relocation of capital to AfricaDeborah Potts says that colonial associations from previous capitals “were sometimes felt to be irritating to independent governments for which the capital is necessarily seen as a symbol of independent national pride.” In fact, after independence, Chandigarh (capital of Punjab and Haryana state) and Gandhinagar (capital of Gujrat state) were built in rapid succession. Alluding to the prominent role occupied by capitals, Nehru even hailed Chandigarh as “symbolic of India’s freedom, freed from traditions of the past, an expression of the nation’s faith in the future”. This, despite the fact that Chandigarh was designed and built by Le Corbusier, a French heritage architect. In addition, some states like Botswana were forced to relocate their capitals after independence because their former capitals no longer fell under their post-colonial territorial jurisdiction.
According to Scott, capitals are often displaced due to wars, revolutions, invasions or annexations. He cites a first example dating from 771 BC.
More recently, however, capital cities have been strategically relocated due to demographics. Kristof Dascher, in his book on capitals, argues that this phenomenon was particularly true when the “the vagaries of the construction of the nation necessitated the choice of a geographically neutral location, situated between the most important constituent territories ”. Establishing a capital in neutral territory, he said, would be “help correct demographic imbalances rooted in the country’s particular geography ”.
In America, for example, Washington DC was chosen as the nation’s capital in 1790, following a compromise between the urbanized northern states and the southern slave agrarian states to share power. Likewise, in Australia, Melbourne and Sydney, the two largest cities, were both competing to become the capital, and neither was willing to cede ground. As a compromise, in 1913 Canberra, located between Melbourne and Sydney, was designated as Australia’s new capital.
Historically, tyrants have been more likely to change capitals than democratically appointed rulers. They often gave their names to the capitals (Constantinople, Alexandria) and the emerging regimes did the same for the national heroes (Washington DC, Leningrad). Due to the cost and enormous resources required to move capitals, the act is more common under authoritarian regimes because tyrants do not necessarily need public opinion on their side.
Following the Arab Spring, current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power after staging a coup that overthrew Mohamad Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president. Former army general el-Sisi announced that he would move the Egyptian capital from Cairo to a new administrative city (NUC) built from scratch at an exorbitant cost. This project was primarily funded by the military and not only will the military pay for it, but it will also reap huge financial benefits from the business. This decision strengthens the role of the army and legitimizes el-Sisi’s hold on power.
Sometimes nature also makes relocation easier. After an earthquake destroyed the city of Antigua in 1773, the Spanish moved the Guatemalan capital to Guatemala City. In addition, over the past decades, cities have become so overcrowded that there are no longer enough resources to support their populations. Moving the capital to a less developed region of the country then theoretically has the double advantage of reducing congestion in one city and promoting development in another part of the country. Nigeria is a perfect example. Initially its capital was Lagos, the most populous city in the country. However, Lagos turned out to be too humid, overcrowded and hot, so in the 1980s the Nigerian government began planning for the establishment of a new capital in Abuja, which was less populated and more central. Indonesia has also announced that its capital will be relocated from Java to the island of Borneo because Java is one of the most densely populated regions in the world.
Man-made climate change will soon force many countries to relocate their capitals out of necessity. In the Philippines, there is a high risk of natural disasters ranging from tsunamis, floods to hurricanes. Its coastal capital Manila is particularly vulnerable in part because it is densely populated and difficult to evacuate. Poor infrastructure, including inefficient drainage systems and lack of social services, further compound the problem. In 2009, almost 80% of the city was submerged by flooding. Given these considerations, it is not inconceivable that the government of the Philippines will have to relocate its capital in the near future. Whether this would reduce Manila’s population density is questionable, however.
Likewise, according to OECD reports, Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh and Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, are ranked 3rde and 7e cities most vulnerable to flooding respectively. Another report by risk analysts Verisk Maplecroft ranked Delhi as the second city most vulnerable to climate change. He found that pollution was the main threat to the city’s health, but like many of the other cities mentioned here, congestion and poor city planning are also a problem. Lima, the capital of Peru, is the most at-risk city in the Americas according to the report, and Muscat, the capital of Oman, has had a glimpse of the changes that accompany a planet that heats up when temperatures hit 41 ° C. Last year.
All of these capitals, as well as many others, are exposed to extreme weather events due to climate change. Unless urgent action is taken, capitals will not be moved because of symbolism, strategy, pride or war, but because we have made them simply inhospitable to human life.
Cold War Metropolis, Campbell Scott, University of Minnesota Press, 2003
North of Astana, Richard Wolfel, Taylor and Francis Online, 2010
Capitals in Modern History: Inventing Urban Spaces for the Nation, Andreas W Daum, Cambridge University Press, 2013
Relocation of capital to Africa: the case of Lilongwe in Malawi, Deborah Potts, Jstor, 1985